Ecocity 7: San Francisco, USA, 2008

Nob Hill Masonic Center, San Francisco, California USA

Host organization: Ecocity Builders

In April 2008, Ecocity Builders brought the conference back to the Bay Area. The 7th International Ecocity Conference (Ecocity World Summit) focused on how cities and citizens can stop and reverse global climate change, biodiversity collapse, loss of wilderness habitat, agricultural lands and open space, and severe social and environmental injustices.


  • People: population, health, equity, and access
  • Nature: protecting and restoring the planet’s living systems and agricultural lands
  • Sustainable Development: land use, transportation, architecture and infrastructure
  • Economies & Technologies: building the supporting markets, businesses and technologies
  • Incentives & Support Structures: role of government, organizations, institutions and individuals

Global Climate Change: Problems & Solutions

We faced the biggest problems with the smallest detail – and the grandest visions. We did not try to pretend everything is going to be alright, the good changes greatly out-powering the negative at this time. We did not downplay and avoid confronting the disasters growing daily. Instead we said, “OK, the alarm clock is going off and I am alarmed, but thanks for the wake up and here’s how we solve that one.” In the spirit of “the truth shall make you free,” we faced our current problems with the best information about what is actually going on, then put the lion’s share of our time and energy into our collective proposed solutions.

Gary Braasch, photographer and author of the new book Earth Under Fire, with his slide show on climate change and cities and Stephen Schneider set the stage with how our atmosphere is doing – it has a dangerous fever. Schneider is the world renowned climate scientist and lead author of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, who, on behalf of the IPCC, shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007. Schneider was making these predictions, with a very high degree of accuracy, since the early 1970s.

Marcia McNutt, CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute gave us a powerful State of the Oceans talk saying CO2 effects there – in causing acidification – are even more damaging to life on Earth than by way of climate change.

The state of the planet’s energy supplies and policies were shown to be hardly less daunting with approaching fossil fuel scarcity – when the conference started oil passed $115/barrel an only five weeks later, slid around between $125 and $135. We covered that and other missteps toward mass biofuels production: competition with food for people and with forests and grasslands for biodiversity. Michael Poremba, Tad Patzak and Jan Lundberg ably presented on that subject. Predictably in our circles, our large share of the solution was to design a city requiring one tenth the energy of conventional ones, and thus reduce demand while shifting to non- or very minimally-damaging solar and wind as primary renewable energy sources.

Inspiration, solutions, and a tribute to Paolo Soleri

Where we shone most auspiciously was in the solutions mainstreamed from immediately after the talks on the state of the world and nature. Jaime Lerner, past mayor of Curitiba, Brazil and governor of the state of Parana, was our keynote speaker and he led us all in a rap-chant at the end of the conference: “Ch, ch, ch, ch -– You can do it! It is possible!” He, with his planning and architect colleagues, did do it for Curitiba, from the early 1970s through to today, turning the city into arguably the closest approximation to an ecocity anywhere.

We featured Paolo Soleri, who was an instrumental wake-up call for Ecocity Builders founder and president, Richard Register, and who  for 38 years, has been constructing as best he can in both theory and literally with the experimental town of Arcosanti, Arizona. At the close of the conference, Register gave a tribute to Soleri’s enormous leadership and courage to build, which received a standing ovation.

Peter Head represented Dongtan, China, which his design and engineering firm, Arup, out of England, calls the “world’s first ecocity” – and it does get close in many particulars. Ken Yeang, ecological architect, showed his designs stretching out from clusters of his buildings into adjacent urban areas with ecological “green fingers” of rooftop corridors thus dissolving the boundaries between architecture of the building and architecture of the whole city.

Lessons from Ancient Civilizations

The Ecocity World Summit started at the beginning of urban history with University of California anthropologist 
Ruth Tringham’s research on Çatalhoyuk, Turkey, oldest city on Earth, occupied from about 8,000 years ago to 7,000 years ago. Richard Register recommends a pilgrimage to that most ancient of towns, just to sit on the 6-story-high mound of the archeological site and contemplate what it was like there in the only place in the world like it in its own time — and for another 1,000 years after it was gone. Then came the Sumerian Civilization, 800 miles away. We looked at historic cities, originally strictly pedestrian, including Kathmandu, Nepal represented by architect and historian Sudarshan Tiwari. We considered future possibilities with Ecotopia author Ernest Callenbach and Register’s numerous drawings of possible ecocities.Lessons from Ancient Civilizations

We brought in the perspectives of indigenous peoples with Lucy Mulenkei from Kenya, Vernon Masayesva from the Hopi Nation in the sandy desert of Arizona and Eskimo Willy Willoya representing his perspectives from growing up in traditional Native American Alaska, in the tradition of seers and prophets anchored in ice, water and wildlife. Their cultures had warned us consistently, from early contact until the present, about what is actually happening with nature under assault – and largely because of our particular city-building habits. We sought guidance for environmental and urban healing and from the religious teachings and traditions of the Hopi with another Arizona delegate Gerry Honawa and leaders in Christian and Buddhist movements for ecological solutions from Sally Bingham who serves as environmental minister at Grace Cathedral, where much of our conference was held, and Mary Evelyn Tucker, senior lecturer in Religion and the Environment at Yale.

Transportation: Averting Collisions

With new urbanist and rail promoter Andy Kunz and others we faced the car head on and – lucky us – avoided any fatal collisions while reporting on the disasters of its dominance of cities. Andy’s latest: a proposal for a moratorium on all new highways and airport runways. It looks like jet fuel prices have beat him to his objective in regard to runways with little need to protest expansion in advance. Highways take a little longer.

Jason Meggs of UC Berkeley and Eschercity Associates presented a detailed case for a paradigm shift to electrify major truck and bus routes not with batteries or hydrogen, but with direct electric drive, and pair “last mile” goods delivery with cargo bikes, trikes and trailers as a much less harmful and more readily available strategy with greatly increased co-benefits.

Jim McCarthy, Assistant Director for Governmental Affairs for the National Federation of the Blind told us of their campaign to place noise makers – of an as-yet undefined particular squeak, twerp, honk, groan, growl, roar, fake regular engine sound… – on electric cars such as the Prius when running without their gasoline engines. The fact that they are virtually silent makes electric drive cars much more dangerous to blind people, and slightly more dangerous than normal cars to sighted people, consistent with the slogan that the better car makes the worse city. Then there are accidents, covering natural and agricultural land and on and on. Interesting story: several car companies offered to sponsor the conference but, consistent with the organizers’ belief that somewhat improved cars just perpetuate sprawl, we turned them down to stay clearly focused on far better alternatives than any kind of car.

In regard to low-speed foot and pedal transportation we had 
Dominika Zareba from Poland representing her work establishing the graceful and delightful pedestrian/bicycle roads that are currently spreading over eastern Europe uniting cities, towns, villages and country inns designed to cater to the walker and cyclists simply and elegantly. How about bridges, between buildings and bridges even out into the upper canopy of forests so that we can experience, enjoy and learn from nature in and close to our cities, such as the beautiful almost Gossamer bridge presented by its architect, Geoff Warn of Perth Australia.We also chronicled rapid moves toward replacing cars and sprawl with trains, streetcars, bicycles and ecocity design and networks. California Assembly Member and Chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority Fiona Ma discussed the auspicious timing for building such a system in California very soon and some of the roadblocks in politics and ways around them.

In regard to city design that needs no or few cars, we had past Governor of Maryland, Parris Glendening, currently President of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute and we had Planning Director of Vancouver, British Columbia, Brent Toderian showing us the way to higher densities that work well and make most people happy. Reid Ewinggave us some of the findings of his report, now a book from the Urban Land Institute called “Growing Cooler – the Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change,” which analyses growth patterns and concludes that improving the car is a fool’s errand because, if we don’t reshape the city and move to clear support for pedestrians, bikes and transit and design for “access by proximity,” all “improvements” of cars will be overwhelmed by sheer numbers and the destructive accompanying infrastructure of low-density development, paving and cheap energy (which in any case will be getting evermore expensive until eventually, in a couple to a few decades, completely unavailable for anything but religious incantations to the long-lost fire gods of the underworld).

Drawing a straight line from theory through education to practice were conference co-convener Rusong Wang, Serigne Mbaye Deine, Paul Downton and Joan Bokaer. Rusong is also Director of the Research Center for Ecological and Environmental Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing and a Member of the Chinese Peoples Congress as well as co-convener with Richard of the Fifth International Ecocity Conference in Shenzhen, China. Serigne is Khalifa, title bestowed for leadership of a man not yet an Elder, of Yoff Village, Senegal. Serigne is responsible for many programs that help that small and rapidly growing town, which since the Third International Ecocity Conference, which he hosted for the village, has been absorbed as a large neighborhood into the rapidly growing next door city of Dakar. Paul Downtown is another building theorist, being the creator of the term “urban fractal” – a fraction of the whole with all essential components of the city or town present and functioning well in interrelationship. These smaller areas, from two or three blocks to a whole district of a city, would be far easier to build than whole ecocities all at once and could guide the way. He is also an architect who has designed and built a beautiful and leading project in Adelaide, Australia called Christie Walk that is a long, solid step with its small interior walking street, mixed uses, rooftop gardens and solar power, and five story straw bale buildings, toward creating one of those urban fractals. Joan Bokaer, from loving the theory of ecocities, went directly in 1991 to founding, with another one of our speakers, Liz Walker, the settlement called Ecovillage in Ithaca, New York. In addition to building theory and literal, physical community on a modest scale – two “neighborhood” clusters of 30 homes each totaling about 165 people – Joan is also an ecocity activist currently working to transform the city of Ithaca itself.

How to communicate the ecocity message? Cleon Ricardo dos Santos is Director of the Open University for the Environment of Curitiba, Brazil and was also a past Ecocity Conference co-convener, for the Fourth International Ecocity Conference in his home town in the year 2000. He was joined by “Planet U” Author Michael M’Gonigle, a professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, in relating their efforts to bring ecocity concepts to their citizens and students.

What to communicate included some hard topics that weave the larger picture of which ecocities are an integral, indispensable part. Moneka Gandhi could not come after all, as a Member of Parliament in India with other pressing issues that came up so we brought her sister and partner in leading India’s largest animal rights organization, People for Animals. She is the articulate and challenging Ambika Shukla. What are the big issues people have a problem getting a sense of proportion about? Not just the city, largest thing humans build, overlooked by the UN Conference on Climate Change in Bali, but issues of population and issues of food production and consumption. Ambika went directly for the uncomfortable issue of diet and meat eating, pointing out the disproportionate amount of land and water required for meat production compared to grains, fruits and vegetables, and the shocking reality of stress, pain and slaughter for the animals that are becomming an ever larger portion of human diet as prosperity spreads over her country, China and other developing countries (the rich countries haven’t slowed down either) – just as fossil aquifers are approaching exhaustion and when rain-renewable water was long ago already called for by existing food production. How to solve that big one: vegetarianism pure and simple. But also, she mentioned, reversing the sprawl of cities to conserve and increase available agricultural land.

We had speakers on Plan B, Lester Brown’s grand scheme which he subtitles in his newest book on the subject as “Mobilizing to Save Civilization,” and speakers tuned in to smaller goals as particular and localized as training teenagers in bicycle repair and bicycle path building. Plan A, business as usual isn’t working. Plan B uses the best and most reliable information available to assess the carrying capacity for various human activities and lays out strategy to prevent exceeding the planet’s “ecological footprint. On that large scale, Janet Larsen represented Brown’s Earth Policy Institute where she is co-chief researcher with Lester, and Mathis Wackernagle explained latest thinking and progress at the Global Footprint Network, which he founded with his wife Susan Burns. Mathis, with William Reese, are the co-creators of the ecological footprint metrics for helping judge the degree of human impacts on nature and society’s resource base.

Josh Squire represented the leading initiative in Lyon and Paris, France by JC Decaux, the advertising company, that has placed thousands of rental bikes on the streets at very low price. Speaking about her group’s work in the San Francisco East Bay, Maya Carson represented Cycles of Change, the group training and advocating for youth involvement with bicycles – both pleasurable and for skills development.

The experimental cities of Auroville, India, a city to house the healthy, peaceful, international, evolving human being and Arcosanti, first of all experiments, moving in a strong ecocity direction from a powerful base in theory, were represented by Lalit Bhatiand Jeff Stein respectively. The community scale development Sonoma Mountain Village and in-the-heart-of-the-beast Los Angeles Ecovillage had Geof Syphers and Lois Arkinspeaking for them. Businesses such as Autodesk, and Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, professional firms like EDAW, landscape architects with their ecocity mapping visions for a future Los Angeles and Atlanta helped lay out a strategy of change into the future by way of striking visualizations. Arup, the world-spanning, world-changing engineering design and planning firm presented seome of its work from Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay to Dongtan, the new ecocity off China’s coast. Aidan Hughes and Peter Headrepresented those projects.

Non-profits such as Bicycle City with their dream of finding a best place for creating a village tending toward a real town with no cars and with transportation based on bicycles was there. Re:Vision, with their ecological city block competition called “Re:Connect – Planning for People and Place,” hosted our Academic Session Opening Reception, complete with Stacey Frost’s description of the ecological blocks she and the group are promoting. In addition to Rusong Wang, our conference co-convener, we also had from China Shanfeng Dong, the head planner for the Shanghai International Investment Corporation’s several “ecocities” that are in design and early construction phases and ZhengHua Qian, Director of the Ecological Construction Special Committee of the Shanghai Architectural Society. There were many, many more. Altogether, including the speakers and workshop leaders at the Academic session where formal papers were presented, we had almost 225 presenters.